David Helvarg’s “The Last Fish” (Spring ‘03 EIJ)
is pretty accurate, but he seems to attribute the disappearance of both
the Atlantic and Pacific salmon to dams. A study of the salmon problem
in Maine suggests that dams were only a part of the issue there.
The Penobscot was dammed in the 1840s, but there was still a viable salmon fishery on that river into the early 20th century. Of the three Maine rivers that a few years ago were credited with harboring a surviving native salmon population, one, the Ducktrap, was dammed in the late 18th century.
These Maine dams were not high dams. Low dams built by beavers may have been essential to stabilizing spawning grounds: there were thousands of them in salmon-bearing tributaries in the 17th and early 18th centuries, at the supposed height of the salmon population.
A study of the history of the salmon issue in Maine suggests that pollution by industrial waste made the lower reaches of the major rivers hostile to young salmon migrating seaward, and erosion from logging silted up spawning grounds, but over-fishing was an equally destructive influence on the population—in the mid-19th century there were hundreds of weirs and fish traps on the Penobscot below the dam at the fall line. Ultimately, the last precipitous decline in salmon population may be attributed to precipitation acidified by midwestern power plants’ exhaust. It is ironic that urban liberal dam-busters have by their successes made Maine even more dependent on imported electricity generated by upwind coal-burning plants, thus putting ever more acid into the weather patterns that ultimately drop it on Maine.
W. B. Leavenworth
David Helvarg replies:
My article said, “Wild Pacific salmon are slowly going extinct, river by dammed, logged and diverted river.” That’s Pacific as in left coast. Scientists have determined that removal of four dams on the Snake River in Eastern Washington would be the most effective way to restore salmon runs on the Columbia and the Snake. President Bush has pledged not to remove them. Of course his Interior Secretary Gail Norton went one step further, rejecting federal scientists’ warnings that Klamath river salmon (being fish) couldn’t live without water. She authorized diversions to upriver farmers and as a result, over 35,000 coho died last fall.
I went on to note that Maine’s wild Atlantic salmon are endangered but that rather than protect the fish (from myriad threats) former Governor Angus King argued that native salmon can be replaced by farmed fish. I’ve seen Maine salmon farms: like terrestrial factory farms, they’re serious sources of pollution, and a threat to the handful of native salmon still around. I also visited with activists who helped breach the Edwards Dam on the Kennebec River in 1999. In 2001, wild salmon and other fish species hatched and swam in a stretch of the Kennebec now flowing freely for the first time in over 160 years.
Of course pollution and over-fishing have been major drivers of its lost fisheries. It’s just ironic that greedy and ignorant Maine politicians would rather defend polluting aquaculture than protect wild salmon.
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